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Deep thought - July 28

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Review: The Upside of Down, by Thomas Homer-Dixon

John McGrath, Gristmill
For a few days after reading The Upside of Down, I annoyed most of my friends and family by reciting chunks of Homer-Dixon's work back to them -- I couldn't get it out of my head. I do this a lot to people, but not usually for days and days on end after reading a book.

The Upside of Down isn't an environmental book, exactly, though it does deal with environmental and energy issues. While it shares some themes with more explicitly environmental books (like Jared Diamond's Collapse), the core of the book is more political and sociological. Homer-Dixon is asking why societies collapse -- what are the pressures our society faces today, and what, if any, are the positive results from the kind of collapse he's talking about?
(24 July 2007)


The World With Us

Alex Steffen, WorldChanging
The World Without Us, Alan Wiseman's new book, explores what would happen if humanity suddenly vanished. How long would it take for humankind's works to be undone? How long would our cities last? Our tools? The chemicals and plastics we've left behind?

This premise allows him to have great fun imagining the stages of a suburban home's decline and fall, exploring the fate of the New York subway systems and touring various involuntary parks (like the Varosha hotel complex in Cyprus). As a thought experiment, it's fun and useful, if gruesome, allowing Wiseman to perform a post-mortem dissection of our current impact on the planet, and how long the consequences of that impact will carry on. There's no information here that's all that new. If you follow environmental issues, nothing in The World Without Us will shock or astound you, though the package makes for a good read.

But I found myself dissatisfied with it. In part, that's because Wiseman doesn't really tackle the essential ethical problem which underlies his premise: what happened to the people? Like many deep green types before him, he simply wishes them away.

That's problematic for two reasons.

The first is that most actual collapse scenarios would be far worse for the planet and its natural systems and biodiversity than our current state of things. As Alan AtKisson has written "A world full of desperate and impoverished people is a world emptied of swordfish, rainforests and panda bears." If we in fact reach the point of collapse, I suspect we will scour the surface of the Earth as we go down. A real collapse would be a sordid and horrible acceleration of the problem, not a solution.
(23 July 2007)


Researchers say giving leads to a healthier, happier life

Jane Lampman, The Christian Science Monitor
Benefits of altruistic love are broken down in a new book, 'Why good things happen to good people.'
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During his childhood on Long Island, N.Y., Stephen Post absorbed a lesson that is playing out powerfully in his and others' lives.

"Whenever I would get into an unhappy, down mood, my mother would always say, 'Well, Stevie, why don't you go out and help somebody,' " he recalls. "I would go out and rake leaves or help a neighbor put canvas over a boat."

He still remembers those small moments vividly because they did make him feel better. And they gave him the impression that helping others was rewarding. Now he knows it for sure.

For the past five years, Dr. Post has been funding research projects that test how altruism, compassion, and giving affect people's lives and well-being.

As head of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love (IRUL), at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, he has sponsored more than 50 studies by scientists from 54 major universities. In a wide range of disciplines - from public health to human development to neuroscience, sociology, and evolutionary biology - the studies have demonstrated that love and caring expressed in doing good for others lead people to have healthier, happier, and even longer lives.

"Giving is the most potent force on the planet ... and will protect you your whole life," says Post, a bioethicist who has taught in the medical school at Case Western for 19 years.

IRUL research is part of a significant shift under way within key scientific disciplines from focusing just on the deficit or disease model of human nature to studying the positive, virtuous, and thriving aspects. In the process, the research is broadening the understanding of what contributes to health and longevity.
(25 July 2007)

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